Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where we take a look at the filmography of any given director film by film, in chronological order. The goal, of course, is to coax out not only a greater understanding of the movies in question, but a broader sense of who is behind the camera and what they’re about. If you’d like to take a look at the full list of directors previously covered, you can find a full listing here.
We continue another week of Stanley Kubrick with more of his most prolific work. In doing this project, the thing that continues to strike me is that someone can have such an iconic career build almost entirely out of adaptations. Every film of the second half of his career was a landmark film, a critical classic entirely on its own merits, and none of it originally came from him. Yet, there is a definite directorial voice at play here, one that seems to bend the disparate subject matters to one complex, sometimes contradictory, always singular view of the world.
After the technical accomplishments and the heady, future-looking philosophies of 2001, Kubrick’s next choice seems almost deliberately chosen to juxtapose against that movie. It would be science fiction, but a more near-future science fiction, one that’s more concerned with people and society than the innate soul of humanity and its potential path of evolution. Where 2001 was esoteric (read: trippy), this was as grounded and animal as you could get.
The thing that strikes me upon watching A Clockwork Orange for a second time is just how inaccessible its world is. We are chucked head-first into some dystopian near-future, with its own strange language and its own rules, and left to just figure it out. From the first moment, with protagonist Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) narrating his night at the milk bar with his droogs, the England presented by the movie might as well be on another planet and speaking another language.
Alex and his droogs are gang of ruffians, going about assaulting the homeless and rival gangs for the simple thrill of what Alex calls ‘the ol’ ultra-violence’. It’s every conservative TV pundit’s nightmare of what our media could make us into, with kids going around murdering and raping without so much as a second thought. Alex seems to be the most cultured monster of his friends, the only articulate one, with a strange sense of whimsy and appreciation for beauty that his more thuggish companions seem to lack. He more than once expresses an appreciation for Beethoven, and jauntily belts out “Singin’ in the Rain” (while beating a man and raping his wife, admittedly, in what is probably the most (in)famous scene in the movie).
Alex lives his life with a self-assured totalitarianism that is teenagers taken to a wild extreme. He goes to school when he feels like it, thwarting the menace of the truant officer. His parents seem vaguely afraid of this near-adult who lives with them. Alex bends his gang members to his will through violence and trickery when they step out of line, an alpha dog who barely controls a dangerous pack. He roams the streets by day as a gentleman version of the predator he is at night, in one particular scene walking through some sort of bazaar as he looks for a particular record. He meets two girls there, quickly turning on the charm and talking them into his bed. The resulting set scene is a high-speed athletic display set to the “William Tell Overture”, and manages to be one of the more hilarious and honest displays of teenage sex, awkward and full of exuberant abandon.
The party ends abruptly, however, when Alex and Co. break into a woman’s home and accidentally end up murdering her. Or, more appropriately, Alex does. His friends, loitering outside, manage to avoid notice when the police arrive. Alex isn’t so lucky, getting nabbed and thrown in jail. A teenager tried as an adult, he’s sentenced to more than a decade in prison for his crime. The jail environment, no-nonsense and deeply regimented, is instantly and deeply unsuited to Alex’s tastes. He plays along, but the guards notice that he stays on good behavior mostly out of smirking contempt. You get the idea that he’s in for some very hard time, until he manages to ingratiate himself with the prison chaplain. This relationship, with Alex playing innocent and pious, manages to make him a candidate for a radical rehabilitation procedure that the government wants to try: the Ludovico Technique.
The Ludovico Technique is a form of aversion therapy, where Alex is strapped down and his eyes pried open, forced to watch violence and sexually explicit material while drugs cause violent reactions in his body, programming him to respond to sex and violence with instant and debilitating sickness and paralyzing fear. To Alex’s horror, he realizes during the technique that the movies they’re showing him are set to his beloved Beethoven, which finally sets him off into genuine remorse and panic when he realizes that his treatment is going to take his favorite thing in the world from him. His pleas do nothing to stop the treatment, however, which continues until he is ‘cured.’
That cure gets him sent back out into the world, but it also leaves him ill equipped to deal with anything he’s going to be confronted by. While he was gone his parents rented his room, and Alex isn’t even left with the capability to stand up to the accusations of this stranger tenant as he berates Alex out of his home. Out on the street, he’s tormented by the homeless man he tormented at the start of the movie, rescued at the last minute by police officers who turn out to be his old gang, graduated to a more respectable form of thuggery. They drag Alex out into the wilderness and pay back all of his brutal leadership before leaving him for dead on the side of the road. Alex, helpless, stumbles towards the nearest home he can find.
The man who lives at that home takes him in, recognizing him as a celebrity and symbol of the government’s power. This man is an intellectual and something of a subversive, and plots to use Alex to show just how far-reaching the totalitarian police state has become. He’s also the victim of Alex’s earlier home invasion, a widower now as his wife died after their assault. Alex recognizes him, but the man remains ignorant even as he gives Alex a room and shows him to a bath. It’s when Alex is washing, able to relax, that he begins to hum “Singin’ in the Rain” which the man recognizes. He locks Alex in his room and blares Beethoven, sending Alex into fits of pain so bad he leaps out of the second story window in an attempt to kill himself.
Alex wakes up on the other side of the state, now a symbol of how awful the subversives are, using a poor troubled young man like him to try to attack the general populace and spread lies. To prove that they’re not as monstrous as they’ve been accused of being, while Alex is asleep they deprogrammed him, returning him to his usual self. Alex, slowly realizing that he has become a government-sponsored monster, wallows in press attention as he turns on the Beethoven and imagines the future of sex and violence that awaits him, this time on salary and with an official title.
Now, I normally wouldn’t go to all the trouble to belabor the plot summary for a movie this popular, except that I feel of all of Kubrick’s later films, this is the one that is the most surface. Not that it doesn’t have intent and themes, but those themes are so baked into the plot that explaining what the movie’s about will actually offer up most of the relevant material without any effort at all. In that respect, A Clockwork Orange is less some dystopian science fiction tale and more a straight fable or morality tale, lining out all of its points early on and then tying itself in knots to show all the various permutations with which those themes are carried out.
If that makes me sound a little dismissive of the whole thing, I don’t have a good answer for that. I don’t deny this is a good movie about an important thing: behavior modification was at the time of the movie’s production a real thing that was in vogue, well worthy of a cautionary tale to be told about the dangers of its application. Hell, there are parallels even today, where in Europe convicted sex offenders are chemically castrated. Is that much different than Alex’s fear and sickness instilled aversion to women? The subversion of free will by the state through these means is just as much a violation as Alex’s earlier rape and pillage subversion of free will by force of crime.
But at the same time, revisiting the movie for a second time I couldn’t help but think just how labored its points were, how many pretzels Kubrick tied himself into in making his point. Maybe it was the perceived urgency of the social movement he was protesting, but there’s a lack of subtlety here that is distressing coming off of the endlessly rewarding 2001. There are benefits: Alex cuts a cool figure in the first third of the movie, but nobody sane would mistake the parody of swaggering brutality the same way they have for movies like American Psycho or Fight Club. And I’ll admit that a lot of this is stuff that strikes me only upon a second viewing. The first time I saw this movie, I was blown away by the breadth of such a terrifyingly plausible vision.
Vision deserves special mention here because the movie is, even on revisit, absolutely gorgeous. The world is cold and sterile, over-designed with sexually explicit art that betrays a culture that is obsessed with the prurient interests they claim to be above. There’s a diorama quality to Kubrick’s constructions in this film, cameras set looking into whole rooms, static as the characters play their roles. Some of this showed up in 2001, but here it takes on a much more theatrical quality, tidy curio shadowboxes to contain the worst of humanity’s potential. The soundtrack, then, deserves special mention, a synthesizer heavy amalgam of electronic music and classical compositions that gives the whole thing a sort of grotesque nobility. It is often the main source of emotion in the movie, but it’s a strange bell jar emotion, twisted to where the recognizable seems alien and comfort is left far behind.
And that’s really the big takeaway from this movie, I think. More than anything, it is a film devoid of comfort. Distressingly real, terrifyingly beautiful, a nightmare romp through a ramshackle future full of sex and death so casually bandied about that people seem to barely bat an eyelash when the two merge and co-mingle. But instead of celebrating that, Kubrick offers up a look at just how horrifying it is. It’s a hard line to walk, to build up a monster that the audience can understand and empathize with on some level without ever offering up actual approval of any of his actions. It’s dangerous moral space, rarely pulled off as well, and even if that’s in service to an idea that’s more message than nuance, the startling clarity with which is goes about what should be a very difficult idea is in its own way a minor miracle.